by Michael Caruso
Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere Art Museum continued its series of Sunday classical music recitals with a performance Sunday, Nov. 18, featuring tenor Perry Brisbon accompanied by pianist Oxana Harlamova. The program’s first half focused squarely on the classical repertoire, offering music by Handel, Donaudy, Rossini, Liszt, Strauss and Cilea. The second half, however, moved into the 20th and 21st centuries, with Brisbon singing music with a distinctly African American flavor. It was in these songs that Brisbon was heard at his best, both vocally and interpretively.
Four years ago, Brisbon gave the world premiere of a suite of six songs by Luke Abruzzo set to poems by Langston Hughes: “As I Grow Older,” “Quiet Girl,” “Dream Variations,” “Dream Keeper,” “Life Is Fine” and “I Dream a World.” Hughes’ poetry strikes a lovely yet powerful balance between the nostalgic and the forceful, and Abruzzo’s music matches and even enhances the poetry by following the natural rhythm of the words with melodies and harmonies that touch the heart and inspire the soul. Brisbon sang them with intensity and eloquence.
A member of the voice faculty at Settlement Music School, Brisbon gave a sassy and compelling reading of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from George & Ira Gershwin’s jazz opera, “Porgy and Bess,” and he gave Hall Johnson’s arrangement of “Witness” a rendition that stood the test of my memories of Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman singing the same song.
Romanian-born conductor Valentin Radu will lead Vox Renaissance Consort in its annual performance of “A Renaissance Noel” Friday, Nov. 30, 8 p.m., in the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The historic church is located at the corner of Willow Grove Avenue and St. Martin’s Lane.
Radu explained, “We invite our friends in and near Chestnut Hill to enjoy a very special Christmas musical experience that is perfect for audience of all ages. ‘Renaissance Noel’ is a joyous musical journey through centuries-old folk songs, carols, madrigals and motets, many of which are sung, loved and revered right up to the present time … beautiful classics such as ‘Greensleeves,’ ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ and the gentle ‘Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.’ The concert is also a feast for the eyes because the professional singers of Vox Renaissance Consort will be attired in beautiful High Renaissance dress.”
The concert will last approximately 75 minutes with no intermission. More information at 610-688-2800 or www.VoxAmaDeus.org.
Fresh from battling the crushing banality of “Alexander Nevsky,” guest conductor Stephane Deneve led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program far closer to his French-born heart this past weekend in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The concert opened with Debussy’s “Images,” continued with Poulenc’s Suite from “Les Biches” and concluded with Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”
Deneve’s best work was heard in the Poulenc, a delightful five-part collection of dance-inspired movements that combine memories of French traditions with the American jazz that Poulenc heard in Paris during the Roaring ’20s. Deneve elicited rhythmically energized and texturally colorful playing from the Philadelphians.
The Gershwin made its accustomed impact on Saturday night’s audience, but the Debussy was less effectively performed. The French Impressionist’s music can veer from magical to flaccid very easily, and it threatened to do so under Deneve’s baton. There were evocative moments, but there were also some rather dull ones. In particular, “Iberia” lacked the fiery passion so typical of all things Spanish — and that Debussy so splendidly captured in this score.
The particular problem with Deneve’s conducting overall was his inability to draw from the ensemble that distinctive sound that once made the Philadelphians so “fabulous.” Under his baton, the players sound like a very, very fine orchestra, but they didn’t sound special, as they do when their new music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conducts them.